November 30, 1993 - From the November, 1993 issue

Santa Monica’s Sustainable City Program: The Need for an Urban Development Model

By John S. Zinner, an energy and environmental planning consultant, and a member of the Santa Monica Planning Commission.

Sustainability is an increasingly heard buzz word. It had its beginning when the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit endorsed a global agenda for sustainability. Agenda 21, the summit's final document, calls on local authorities throughout the world to adopt sustainable city programs. 

What is sustainability, and what does it mean for local government? The city of Santa Monica is the first Los Angeles-area community to try to answer this question. 

Simply put, sustainability means meeting our current needs in a way which does not compromise the ability of future generations to do the same. Sustainability, therefore, focuses on both the long and short term ramifications of decisions. It encompasses not only the traditional environmental topics of air, water and soil, but also housing, economic development, social justice and sense of community. Stated differently, Southern California's environment, when broadly and properly defined to mean all issues impacting our quality of life, is the key to our future. Unfortunately, however, local and regional environmental concerns continue to be addressed in an ad hoc, disjointed, and often contradictory fashion, leading to confusion, bureaucratic gridlock and lost opportunities. 

What is needed is an urban development model which provides logic and direction to environmental policy and a clear vision for our future. Sustainability is that model. The city of Santa Monica, while recognized as a national leader in designing and implementing cutting edge environmental programs, realized that the city's long range goals have never been clearly defined and that decision making is often compartmentalized. Santa Monica responded to this concern by developing the proposed “Santa Monica Sustainable City Program.” 

The program suggests, among others. the following principles:

  • All decisions have environmental implications. The city will ensure that each of its policies and programs are interconnected through the common bond of sustainability.
  • Environmental quality and economic health are mutually dependent. A healthy environment is crucial for the long term prosperity of the city and its residents.
  • Community awareness, responsibility and involvement are the key elements of successful environmental programs.

What are the types of problems the Sustainable City Program is trying to address? Here is one example. Most transportation projects focus on moving cars and creating parking, frequently without balancing the needs of pedestrians, the impact street widening has on the ability of water to soak into the ground, or the “urban heat island” effect of ever more pavement. Traffic and public works professionals often ignore these issues because that is how their transportation "mission" is currently defined. 

Another example is Santa Monica's affordable housing program. Providing housing for those with limited incomes addresses only part of the need. In order for affordable housing to fully serve its tenants, it must be safe to live in (built with non-toxic materials), cost effective to operate (water and energy efficient) and provide convenient access to services and employment opportunities (located in mixed-use projects and near transit). These long-term values frequently conflict with the immediate demands on scarce affordable housing funds.

These problems exist at the regional level as well. Consider:

  • Los Angeles County and the Army Corps of Engineers are proposing to spend $500 million to build higher banks on the Los Angeles River to prepare for a worst case flood. Meanwhile, local agencies are desperately searching for funds to implement innovative storm drain pollution control projects which, among other benefits, would increase the watershed's capacity to absorb runoff, and thereby reduce the need for bigger storm channels. Imagine the environmental benefits if the $500 million were invested in creative, cost-effective and community-based efforts for watershed restoration and pollution prevention, rather than more concrete.
  • Water efficiency programs which retrofit old plumbing fixtures with ultra-low flow toilets and other fixtures save water, reduce sewage flow and lower energy demands. Yet, since water agencies, sewer districts and energy utilities operate independent of each other, it is extremely difficult to create effective joint programs in which the costs are apportioned based on shared benefits.

What does a sustainable city look like? A sustainable city recognizes that the pedestrian is more important than the car, that walking to the store for a quart of milk is better than having to drive, and that what we require is not transportation but access, not energy but light and comfort. Sustainability compels us to deal with the underlying cause of problems rather than symptoms. It leads to creative (yet often incredibly logical) thinking such as charging each household for the amount of garbage they generate rather than a flat fee (a strategy implemented in Santa Monica) and helping businesses and households use non-toxic products rather than paying more and more for collecting, disposing and cleaning up hazardous materials. 

The Sustainable City Program includes policies, programs and specific year-2000 performance goals (i.e. reducing potable water usage by 25% and providing 750 additional affordable housing units). It was developed by the city's Task Force on the Environment with input from all key departments and a number of commissions. The current focus is on a carefully designed campaign to involve the community and gain consensus. It is anticipated that the program will be reviewed by City Council in early 1994. 

One early product of the Santa Monica Sustainable City Program will be a checklist to be utilized by all city departments to make sure that the broad environmental implications of each decision, as encompassed by sustainability, are considered. 

Another initiative is the recognition that many sustainable building blocks, such as "traffic calming" (re­designing streets to slow down traffic and encourage pedestrian use), mixed-use development and street tree planting, are neighborhood based. Santa Monica's goal is to develop a process whereby neighborhoods can identify the environmental problems and risks which impact them and create local solutions. The value of the Sustainable City Program depends on the success Santa Monica has in implementing concrete programs and meeting the performance goals. The citywide commitment has to be made to insure that this is simply not another nice-sounding policy statement. 


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